Critical literacy and churnalism

market 1

market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

Anybody who’s interested in starting an online business could not but notice the interest in internet marketing – specifically through the so-called ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and the like).  Yes, we all know that in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream – but can they hear you market?  Interesting conundrum.

What I find amusing, in my wry and cynical way, is the huge emphasis on ‘content marketing’, and this is, I believe, of direct interest to information professionals.  Do a Google search for ‘content marketing’ and be prepared to be astonished – not so much by the number of hits you get, as the enormous range of differing opinions of what people think it is.  The most popular use of the term seems to suggest that it is little more than the fluff surrounding product promotion.  For example, if your product is dog shampoo, you will write anything at all about dogs, and keeping them clean and flea- and mud-free.  Never mind that the content is trivial, repetitive, and extremely badly written, as long as it scores on the Google hit charts and that people are directed to your site.  And buy your dog shampoo.

Now, as has been extensively discussed on this blog previously, ‘content’ – i.e. the stuff contained in a document such as a web page or book or film or vinyl record – is what I call ‘information’: the idea somebody has had, expressed and recorded in shared symbolic codes (language, writing, music, mathematics).  Extending this, it would appear that the newest trend in the digital world – in particular, the commercial part of it (and sometimes it’s hard to know what isn’t commercial) – is marketing ideas.

Yawn.  So what else is new?  Information professionals – and educators of all stripes – have been ‘marketing’ ideas for a long time.  Indeed, they do more than that: they select, arrange, organise, curate, store, protect and make available ideas, from any source.  Why? Not to sell ‘products’ as such, but to enable people to better understand their lives and the context in which they live: specifically, perhaps, to help them make better decisions by developing critical thinking skills and so sorting out the wheat from the chaff.  As previously mentioned, information professionals have a social responsibility and thus, it should follow, do not have ulterior motives.

‘Content marketing’ as it is practised seeks to achieve something quite different: manipulation.  From syndicated (and biased) news reports repeated endlessly no matter which newspaper you read (so it seems, anyway), to badly written ebooks written by people deficient in intelligence, erudition, maturity, insight and grammatical skills, to billions of blogs, probably written by the same people.  And they all repeat each other.  In fact, there is even software which will ‘rewrite’ the same thing in many different ways so that the same ‘content’ (I hesitate to call it ‘information’ because it may not even contain an idea) can be published many times.  You can also get – and for free, quite often – a collection of ready-written blog articles to suit whatever it is that you wish to publicise – home-schooling, gluten-free recipes, sportscars, adventure holidays – you name it, someone has supplied a load of bumpf for you to re-use.  I visited some freelance sites a while ago, and found that the majority of bidders for jobs requiring writing and editing skills for English content did not have English as their home language and/or couldn’t write their application without glaring grammatical errors.  No wonder so much stuff published on the internet is virtually unreadable.

So much for the ‘information explosion’.  Most comments on this issue focus on one of two phenomena: the huge increase in scientific and scholarly publications, or the easily accessible media now available – including, of course, the internet, as well as the traditional magazines, radio, television and newspapers.  While the vast amount of scholarly information now available does stretch the resources and imaginations of information professionals, the general public seldom has interest in or direct access to such information.  So many of us turn to Google, and are satisfied with whatever answer we find that seems vaguely relevant amongst the first 10 or so hits.  But the biggest ‘information’ explosion has come from every Joe Blow now thinking he knows something worth sharing.  Or even, knowing that they have nothing of interest to share, but sharing it anyway.  This disease appears to be contagious, gathering up common citizens, students, retirees, the unemployed, as well as people who should know better, such as journalists.  In the frenzy of making their digital mark, an awful lot is being badly said about nothing at all.  And this is what will, in all probability, appear in those first 10 hits.

This presents a real challenge to information professionals.  Critical thinking skills are seriously in decline, and many individuals seem to be unable to distinguish between ‘content’ that is being marketed, and reliable ‘information’. Citizens of the world, most of whom are able to vote, are being sucked into a vortex of ignorance and stupidity – in this, the ‘Information Age’.  If this continues, the meaning of ‘cultural memory institutions’ will evaporate, as their contents will simply not be understood, or worse, regarded as irrelevant to daily life.  All of those ideas which our forebears had, and recorded, that have shaped how we live today, will be invisible, as good as useless.

It’s not just ‘access’ that we should be concerned with – that”s easy enough, and becoming easier as information objects (‘documents’) are being digitised and networked.  And it’s  ‘reading’ either.  We shouldn’t be asking what people read.  We should try to understand  what our users understand and learn from what they read, and become teachers of critical literacy.

 

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What is a book and can it change?

The UNESCO logo

Image via Wikipedia

Yes, I know it’s been some time.  Life sometimes gets in the way of living – and writing.  And it’s all a question of priorities, which is prioritised as today’s theme, after I read that the Second UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries will be held in Lombardia, Italy, from 6th to 8th June 2011.  Their focus for 2011 is, importantly for us, “The book tomorrow: the future of the written word”, as ambiguous a title as you are likely to meet anywhere.  Of course, I would love to be there, but Australia is a bit out of the loop for impetuous Italian trips.  But this is clearly going to be an important discussion forum: look at how many organisations are involved: http://focus2011.org/institutions-corporate-bodies/.

Instead, I avidly read some interesting contributions which have already been made pre-conference, which you will find at http://focus2011.org/blog/ , the blog of the Focus 2011 site.    In chronological order, let me make some comments about these contributions.

Abdelaziz Abid outlines the primary objective of UNESCO as to build a knowledge society: an objective supported by the World Digital Library which was launched in 2009.  Clearly there is a strong relationship between knowledge societies, and libraries which provide and promote access to knowledge, and the digital library is understood to be the ‘hub of knowledge societies’.  He expresses the view that digital libraries, by being plugged into networks, provide access to a much wider range of resources than is possible in a traditional library.   He differentiates between the WDL, Europeana and Google Book Search.  as well as describing the construction of the WDL in some detail.

Milagros del Corral suggests that digitisation is changing the ways in which we read and write, as well as the business model of publishing.  He points out that books are no longer static as they can easily be altered or modified (I don’t really agree with this general statement, and he provides no clear example).  He suggests that access may be ‘free’, but this too will depend on a number of factors, not least membershio of some organisation.  A further jumble of almost rhetorical questions follows: Will print be high or low brow in a digital age?  Does e-reading affect our thoughts and the ways our brains work? HOw will digitisaition efforts be financed on an ongoing basis?  How can creative endeavours be taxed?  What is the future of copyright?  To many of these questions, the appropriate answer may well be, “Well, let’s wait and see” as predictions are notoriously inaccurate.  The digitisation of library resources is presented unequivocally as the next stage of ‘library evolution’.

Christian Roblin claims that libraries are now at a crossroads, as they will be a ‘service’ when libraries are ‘without books’.  Other risks include rights determination, long-term partnerships and their sustainability, and disseamination which avoids illegal re-use.   It is the library service itself that is the most problematic area for Roblin, however.  The loss of expertise – such as the librarian’s ability to index materials – now appear extinct and the question then becomes, What can libraries offer in the digital universe?  I, for one, am convinced that libraries never existed in the first place to provide a certain group of people with the opportunity to index monographs.

Copyright remains an important problem in the digital age, and this is addressed by Esther Wojicki.  She associates the Creative Commons movement (an initiative of Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson and James Boyle) as deeply associated with the digital age, as digitised materials cannot be controlled in the same way as physical materials.  She states that, “Copyright is based on a fundamental purpose of creation of more knowledge and culture”, which is one way of looking at it which is refreshing.  Having said that, however, she asks whether different publishing formats or digital genres may ned different copyright laws, a suggestion that does not seem to be consistent.

The biography of a book, the contribution made by Prashant Narekuli, led me to anticipate an analytical bibliographic approach.  Indeed, he begins by suggesting that ebooks have been designed to resemble ‘real’ books as closely as possible.  This is seen as a good thing, allowing people to embrace the new technologies easily, even though this has prevented an imaginative consideration of other ways in which contemporary technologies could be used.  For some reason, he suggests that new devices should come with health warnings, similar to those found on packets of cigarettes.  I fail to understand the connection nor the point he is making.

The future of reading (and writing) is explored further by Dr Sok-Ghee Baek.  Apart from the cliched notion of a ‘paradigm shift’, what is considered here is not only a complete break from printed to digital books, but some kind of oppositional tension between the two formats, based on the need for a suitable business model.  On the one hand, he argues, people use digital media because they are easy to use, but on the other, ‘traditional paper books will continue to be a core companion’.  So, which is it, Dr Baek?  This is rather inconclusive.  Much of the rest of his piece is devoted to a description of the situation in South Korea, accmonpanied by statements such as ‘Technology will continue to develop in the future’, ‘International solidarity is also needed for copyrights protection’, and ‘digital publication and digital reading have become problems in reality’ (really?  how?).  Baek does not seem to support the idea that ‘reading is reading is reading’ (thank you, Gertrude Stein) – whether a digital or analogue document is used to support the activity.

A view from Japan is presented by Haruok Tsujita, describing the Japaneses as early embracers and adopters of a range of technologies.  In spite of this, he believes that ebooks should imitate as closely as possible the traditional formats of books to which we have become accustomed, even though there are advantages to be exploited for various groups, such as the visually impaired.

Copyright is again addressed, this time by Peter Brantley.    In this model, the ‘author’ must be redefined, as this could be the software engineer, the participant user who customises his/her experience, or even the provider of the facility.  It is this latter role that the library is thought to assume.  He concludes that the technologies could (and should) merge the roles of the writer and readre, composer and artist and so forth: an idea not dissimilar (albeit at rather a different level) to Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’.

A rather more pragmatic view – on training in the production and distribution chain – is addressed by Aida Diab, as it is thie changes in this ‘chain’ that demands a new organisation.  The word ‘evolution’ is used again here, implying not only the notion of progress and improvement, but also of reification and inevitability.  She suggests that ther should be a ‘new approach’ which is ‘more focused on content than product’, and by this I assume she means the intellectual content as opposed to the physical format.  In the list of important things that ‘must’ be done, there is talk of ‘managemnet tools’, ‘new economic models’, ‘exploitation of free-of-charge licenses and creative commons’, ‘model the financial impact’, and of course adapting to ‘evolutions on an everyday basis’, which I am sure Darwin would find rather surprising.  This sentence epitomises this contribution for me: “By mastering the new production chain, we can augment considerably the commercial potential and the visibility of the editorial offer while sustaining innovation” which explains, to me anyway, absolutely nothing at all about the future of the book.

Then there is the question of whether digitisation is good, bad or indifferent, a topic tackled by Anand Bhushan.  Sensibly, the relationship between costs and benefits is raised, and two benefits are suggested: increased access and preservation.  ‘Digital preservation’ has always seemed to me to be rather an oxymoron.  ‘Increased access’ is also dubious, if you consider all the impediments that still exist for so many people on the planet: lack of electricity, lack of technical skill, no equipment, illiteracy and expensive internet connections, just to start.  So we are really talking about increased access for an elite to possibly the most ‘highbrow’ or elite materials – the cultural heritage which, it is considered by various people for various reasons – is worthy of being digitised.  The usual litany of problems with digitised documents is also raised: possibilities for privacy; different physical reading experience; technical incompatabilities, recondite technological tricks and , interestingly, energy consumption.  He continues by discussing which genres of literature are worth digitising: science fiction, poems, short stories…  As if reading is only associated with entertainment and leisure…

Janet Murray sensibly opens her contribution by stating that that “here is nothing sacred about print”.  Of course, this was not true historically, and for the illiterate, ‘print’ remains as inaccessible as anyting else sacred.  She makes the useful point, though, that books are merely a medium of representation, as are computers, and that electronic or digital representation is inherently different as an alternative, particularly because of the possibilities for modification and interactivity between author and reader.  She maintains – and quite rightly, in my view – that “books will not disappear with the advent of digital genres”.  What is less clear is the ways in which ebooks might ‘evolve’ as we become more familiar with the capabilities of the technologies, and as new technologies develop which are as yet unimagined.

It is this last (and most recent) piece with which I concur.  In accordance with the definitions which I have previously suggested, it is rather foolish to consider the ‘book’ as a monograph or, perhaps even more specifically, as a codex.  If knowledge is what we know, and information is what we choose to share with people, and which we must represent in abstract symbols that are granted meaning only within a cultural context, and further, if a document is a container in which we can record that information, abstracting it still further by representing it in ‘writing’, so that our ideas (‘information’) can overcome spatio-temporal constraints), of course there is a future for the book.  Whether it is digital or printed on paper is quite immaterial: all we, as librarians and information professionals, are concerned with, is facilitating the flow of information (‘ideas’) from one person to another, across space and time.  Yes, the new technologies will make us think of what we do in a different way, but our purpose and objectives remain the same, as does our belief that information is transformative.  We believe, as an article of faith, that receiving ideas and understanding them, making meaning of them, assists us (and others) in our life’s journeys.  Whether we receive that information, or those ideas, by radio, morse code, comic book, newspaper, movie, Blu-Ray or 3D television really doesn’t matter, even though we do know that communication mediated by technologies may affect meaning in some ways, and demand new ‘literacies’.  But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, perhaps I’m not that sorry that I’m missing this discussion.  The core of the issue has not yet been identified, in these contributions at least, but perhaps the appointed speakers will have ideas that demand further attention.